The Tribes of Israel
This article is divided into the following sections:
Ancient History of the Tribes
Future of the Tribes - Biblical Prophecy
Recent History of the Tribes
False Doctrines Concerning the Tribes
Over the years, I have heard a lot of various strange, unscriptural teachings regarding the ten northern tribes of Israel, and I have received many questions about them. The purpose of this article is to explain what we know from the scriptures about the ten northern tribes. We will begin by studying the ancient history of the tribes of Israel as it is chronicled in the old testament. Then we will examine the Biblical prophecies that God has given regarding the tribes. Next we will discuss some of the more recent history of Israel over the last one hundred plus years. Then after we have reviewed this background knowledge, we will look at some common false doctrines that are sometimes taught regarding the tribes of Israel.
Ancient History of the Tribes
To begin, it is helpful to know some of the ancient history of the tribes of Israel. Abraham's grandson, Jacob (Israel) had twelve sons, born in the years around 1750 BC. Listed in order of age, they are Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin (Genesis 29:32 - 30:24 and Genesis 35:18). But their father, Israel, gave Joseph a double portion, so that each of his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, became a tribe rather than just one tribe of Joseph (Genesis 48:5). So that made the total thirteen tribes, but the tribe of Levi received no contiguous region of land like the other tribes. Instead, the Levites were given certain cities, including the cities' suburbs, scattered about the lands of the other tribes (Numbers 35:1-8). Levi was the tribe of the priesthood that received tithes of the other twelve tribes who each had land. So there are twelve sons of Jacob, and twelve tribes that had contiguous regions of land, but thirteen tribes overall, if you are counting Ephraim and Manasseh separately.
After the reign of King Solomon, around 980 BC, the kingdom of Israel split. The ten northern tribes rebelled against King Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, the son of David, of the tribe of Judah. It should be noted that one of the ten tribes that rebelled, Simeon, was actually south of Judah and Benjamin, but more distant from Jerusalem. Judah, along with Benjamin, were the two southern tribes that remained loyal to Rehoboam, who reigned from the capital city of Jerusalem. Like Judah, the lands of Benjamin were near Jerusalem. The ten northern tribes (including Simeon) made Jeroboam, a son of one of Solomon's servants, their king instead of Rehoboam.
The split of the kingdom of Israel occurred when the new King Rehoboam told Israel that he would make their burdens heavier, rather that lighter, than his father Solomon had done. Rehoboam told Israel in 1 Kings 12:14, "... My father made your yoke heavy, and I will add to your yoke: my father also chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions." These words provoked rebellion by the northern tribes, but 1 Kings 12:15 tells us that "... the cause was from the LORD, that he might perform his saying, which the LORD spake by Ahijah the Shilonite unto Jeroboam ...." This was as prophesied near the end of Solomon's reign, in 1 Kings 11:31, when the prophet Ahijah said to Jeroboam, "... thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel, Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to thee (Jeroboam) ...." In 1 Kings 11:33 the prophet gives God's reason, "Because that they have forsaken me, and have worshipped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, Chemosh the god of the Moabites, and Milcom the god of the children of Ammon, and have not walked in my ways, to do that which is right in mine eyes, and to keep my statutes and my judgments, as did David his (Solomon's) father." Then in 1 Kings 11:34-35 we see that the split would actually occur during Rehoboam's reign, not during Solomon's lifetime. "Howbeit I will not take the whole kingdom out of his hand: but I will make him (Solomon) prince all the days of his life for David my servant's sake, whom I chose, because he kept my commandments and my statutes: But I will take the kingdom out of his son's hand (Rehoboam's hand), and will give it unto thee (Jeroboam), even ten tribes." So the ten tribes were not removed from the royal line of David and Solomon until after Solomon had died.
Once the split occurred, it was maintained and deepened by the wicked actions of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12:26-31, who set up false gods to be worshipped by the northern tribes. "... Jeroboam said in his heart, Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David: If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah. Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan. And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan. And he made an house of high places, and made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi." The term "Israel" usually refers to the entire nation, all of the tribes, but sometimes in the old testament, it refers just to the northern kingdom of ten tribes, as is the case in the passage above. The ten are Reuben, Simeon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, and Manasseh.
The southern tribes were Judah and Benjamin. Since Judah was the larger tribe, and the line of kings came through them, the southern kingdom became known as the kingdom of Judah. Since the temple was in Jerusalem in the south, much of the priestly tribe of Levi remained in the south. It should be noted that since Ephraim was the largest of the tribes in the north, God sometimes refers to the northern kingdom as "Ephraim". The two split kingdoms never reunited, and occasionally even warred against one another. They will not reunite until Jesus Christ returns.
One such war took place sometime around 730 BC, when 2 Kings 16:5 says, "Then Rezin king of Syria and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to war: and they besieged Ahaz (king of Judah) ...." So we see this strange alliance of Syria and Israel against Judah. But the alliances get even stranger. For we see in 2 Kings 16:7-8, "So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglathpileser king of Assyria, saying, I am thy servant and thy son: come up, and save me out of the hand of the king of Syria, and out of the hand of the king of Israel, which rise up against me. And Ahaz took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the LORD (the temple), and in the treasures of the king's house, and sent it for a present to the king of Assyria." Now one might think that if there were alliances, it would have been between Judah and Israel against Syria and Assyria. But no, this is Judah and Assyria against Israel and Syria. "And the king of Assyria hearkened unto him: for the king of Assyria went up against Damascus (Syria's capital), and took it, and carried the people of it captive to Kir, and slew Rezin ..." (2 Kings 16:9). So Assyria was persuaded by the lavish gifts and kind words and came to the aid of Judah. From 2 Kings 16:1-9 and 2 Kings 17:1-6 it is clear that this took place no more than about 20 years before Israel was taken captive by Assyria.
Around 718 BC or so, Judah's King Hezekiah sent letters to the northern kingdom, asking them to come to Jerusalem to keep the passover feast and worship Jehovah, the God of Israel, as they had done in the days of old. For the most part, the northern tribes refused and mocked the idea. But there were exceptions, as recorded in 2 Chronicles 30:11, "Nevertheless divers of Asher and Manasseh and of Zebulun humbled themselves, and came to Jerusalem." In 2 Chronicles 30:18, many of Ephraim and Issachar, are also mentioned as having participated.
But just a few years later, in about 712 BC, the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom and took the ten tribes captive (2 Kings 17:6). Some might wonder why Assyria did not take the southern kingdom (Judah) captive as well. Of course it was because it was not the Lord's will at that time, and the Lord works these things after His own will. But God often uses the men, and their motivations, to accomplish His will. One factor may have been that Hezekiah, the king of Judah at the time Israel was taken captive, was a good king who, "... did that which was right in the sight of the Lord ..." (2 Kings 18:3). Also, perhaps Assyria refrained from attacking Judah, remembering their alliance with King Hezekiah's wicked father, King Ahaz, a few years earlier.
In about 606 BC the Babylonians invaded the southern kingdom and took the tribes of the kingdom of Judah captive. After the Babylonian kingdom fell to the Medes and Persians seventy years later, the tribes of the former kingdom of Judah were permitted to return to the land of Israel. But only a small percentage of the Jews, less than 50,000, chose to return (Ezra 2:64), with the majority choosing to remain in Babylonia. Although the Jews were now free once again, the kingdom of Judah was not reestablished when they returned to the land of Israel. They remained under the rule of the Medes and Persians. Later the Jews would be ruled by the Macedonians (often referred to as the Greek Empire) who conquered the Medes and Persians. Still later, the Jews would be ruled by the Romans who conquered the Macedonians. The Romans were in control at the time of Christ's earthly ministry.
In the portion of scripture referred to as the new testament, the tribes of various individuals are not mentioned very often. But on occasion, the tribes are given. For example, Jesus Christ and His earthly parents, Joseph and Mary, were all from the tribe of Judah (Matthew 1 and Luke 3). The apostle Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5). Barnabas was from the tribe of Levi (Acts 4:36).
After the ten northern tribes were taken captive by the Assyrians in 712 BC, the record of what became of them is not as clear as it is for the southern tribes. There is no specific scriptural record of the ten northern tribes being released to return to their home land. But the Bible does tell us where some of those from the northern tribes wound up.
Some individuals and families rejoined tribes of the south. We see evidence of this shortly after the birth of Jesus, where Luke 2:36 says,"... there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age ...." So Anna was of the tribe of Asher, one of the ten northern tribes. Yet there she was, in Jerusalem, more than 700 years after the Assyrian invasion.
Others returned to their home land in Samaria. In John 4:20, a woman of Samaria said to Jesus, "Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." The Samaritans were descendants of the northern tribes of Israel. Later in the chapter, the woman told the Samaritans of her city about Jesus, "And many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him for the saying of the woman, which testified, He told me all that ever I did. So when the Samaritans were come unto him, they besought him that he would tarry with them: and he abode there two days ..." (John 4:39-40). Also, we see from Acts 2 and from Paul's journeys that Jews had been scattered all over the Roman Empire and beyond. Paul found a Jewish synagogue in almost every new country and city to which he traveled.
Just a few years later in 70 AD, the Roman Empire destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, killing more that one million Jews in the process (Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6.9.3). This further scattered the remnant of Jews and ended any remaining vestige of national authority that Israel had.
Future of the Tribes - Biblical Prophecy
Now that we have a basic historical background of the tribes from the scriptures, let us look at some of the prophecies about the tribes. Some of these prophecies have already been fulfilled, and some are yet to be fulfilled in the future. Some of the prophecies were given long before the tribes were scattered. But it is also interesting to note that even well after the northern tribes had been taken captive by the Assyrians, God still speaks of specific prophecies concerning those tribes. This shows that God knows where they are and who they are, whether we do or not. We will be pointing out some of these "post-exile" prophecies involving the northern tribes as we continue.
God had given prophecies about the scattering and regathering of Israel. In the old testament, God foretold that He would remove the nation of Israel from their land which He had given them and would scatter them into all nations, and that Israel would be greatly persecuted and live in fear.
Deuteronomy 28:63-67 says, "And it shall come to pass, that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the LORD will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest to possess it. And the LORD shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone. And among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the LORD shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind: And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life: In the morning thou shalt say, Would God it were even! and at even thou shalt say, Would God it were morning! for the fear of thine heart wherewith thou shalt fear, and for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see."
Thousands of years of history have proven this to be true. About six million Jews were killed in Germany by the Nazis. As terrible as that was, it is but one piece of the great persecution that the Jews have faced from nation to nation over the centuries. Many times they have been banished from one country and forced to flee to another. But God also said that one day He would gather them back to the land of Israel.
Deuteronomy 30:1-3 says, "And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath driven thee, And shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; That then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee."
Many other Bible passages prophesied Israel's scattering and regathering as well. Hosea 3:4-5 says, "For the children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince, and without a sacrifice, and without an image, and without an ephod, and without teraphim: Afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the LORD their God, and David their king; and shall fear the LORD and his goodness in the latter days."
Amos 9:9 says, "For, lo, I will command, and I will sift the house of Israel among all nations, like as corn is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least grain fall upon the earth."
Isaiah 11:11-12 says, "And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth."
Jeremiah 30:3 says, "For, lo, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will bring again the captivity of my people Israel and Judah, saith the LORD: and I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it." We know the context is the future tribulation period because verse 30:7 says "Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob's trouble; but he shall be saved out of it." Then in verses 10-11 we see, "Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob, saith the LORD; neither be dismayed, O Israel: for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and shall be in rest, and be quiet, and none shall make him afraid. For I am with thee, saith the LORD, to save thee: though I make a full end of all nations whither I have scattered thee, yet will I not make a full end of thee ...."
God said in Ezekiel 11:16-17, "... Although I have cast them far off among the heathen, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they shall come. Therefore say, Thus saith the Lord GOD; I will even gather you from the people, and assemble you out of the countries where ye have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel."
Ezekiel 36:22-24 says, "... Thus saith the Lord GOD; I do not this for your sakes, O house of Israel, but for mine holy name's sake, which ye have profaned among the heathen, whither ye went. And I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the heathen, which ye have profaned in the midst of them; and the heathen shall know that I am the LORD, saith the Lord GOD, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes. For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land." So it is not that Israel behaved righteously among the Gentiles and is being rewarded by being brought back to their land. No, God will bring them back in spite of their unrighteousness, not for their sakes, but for His holy name's sake.
The book of Ezekiel was written after 600 BC, more than 100 years after the northern tribes had been taken captive by Assyria. Never-the-less, Ezekiel 48 describes a specific portion of land that will be given to each tribe of Israel.
Ezekiel 48:1-7 says, "Now these are the names of the tribes. From the north end to the coast of the way of Hethlon, as one goeth to Hamath, Hazarenan, the border of Damascus northward, to the coast of Hamath; for these are his sides east and west; a portion for Dan. And by the border of Dan, from the east side unto the west side, a portion for Asher. And by the border of Asher, from the east side even unto the west side, a portion for Naphtali. And by the border of Naphtali, from the east side unto the west side, a portion for Manasseh. And by the border of Manasseh, from the east side unto the west side, a portion for Ephraim. And by the border of Ephraim, from the east side even unto the west side, a portion for Reuben. And by the border of Reuben, from the east side unto the west side, a portion for Judah."
Continuing in Ezekiel 48:22-29, "Moreover from the possession of the Levites, and from the possession of the city, being in the midst of that which is the prince's, between the border of Judah and the border of Benjamin, shall be for the prince. As for the rest of the tribes, from the east side unto the west side, Benjamin shall have a portion. And by the border of Benjamin, from the east side unto the west side, Simeon shall have a portion. And by the border of Simeon, from the east side unto the west side, Issachar a portion. And by the border of Issachar, from the east side unto the west side, Zebulun a portion. And by the border of Zebulun, from the east side unto the west side, Gad a portion. And by the border of Gad, at the south side southward, the border shall be even from Tamar unto the waters of strife in Kadesh, and to the river toward the great sea. This is the land which ye shall divide by lot unto the tribes of Israel for inheritance, and these are their portions, saith the Lord GOD."
Now think about it. If this were just a parable or symbolic passage, would there be any point in enumerating every individual tribe? No. If this were just a parable or symbolic passage, would there be any point in providing a geographic description of the plot of land given to each individual tribe including the length, width, and location? No. It should be painfully obvious this is a real, literal, physical, geographic description of the land given to the real, literal, biological descendants of each of these sons of Israel.
Ezekiel 48:31-34 also specifies a gate to the city of Jerusalem for each tribe. "And the gates of the city shall be after the names of the tribes of Israel: three gates northward; one gate of Reuben, one gate of Judah, one gate of Levi. And at the east side four thousand and five hundred: and three gates; and one gate of Joseph, one gate of Benjamin, one gate of Dan. And at the south side four thousand and five hundred measures: and three gates; one gate of Simeon, one gate of Issachar, one gate of Zebulun. At the west side four thousand and five hundred, with their three gates; one gate of Gad, one gate of Asher, one gate of Naphtali."
These same gates are also mentioned in Revelation 21:12-13, in the middle of the description of the new Jerusalem after the future 1000 year kingdom. "... had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates."
The book of Zechariah was written after Jews return from Babylon, around 500 BC. Zechariah 9:1 says, "The burden of the word of the LORD in the land of Hadrach, and Damascus shall be the rest thereof: when the eyes of man, as of all the tribes of Israel, shall be toward the LORD." (See also verse 10 and 13 which mentions Ephraim.) In the next chapter, Zechariah 10:6-7 says, "And I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph, and I will bring them again to place them; for I have mercy upon them: and they shall be as though I had not cast them off: for I am the LORD their God, and will hear them. And they of Ephraim shall be like a mighty man, and their heart shall rejoice as through wine: yea, their children shall see it, and be glad; their heart shall rejoice in the LORD." Note that this book was written more than two hundred years after the Assyrians took the northern tribes captive. If those tribes were gone for ever, God would not have been making prophecies about the future of "Joseph" and "Ephraim" and "all the tribes of Israel".
God also spoke in Zechariah 2:4-8 of the tribes returning from the land of the north and from Babylon. "... Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein: For I, saith the LORD, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her. Ho, ho, come forth, and flee from the land of the north, saith the LORD: for I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heaven, saith the LORD. Deliver thyself, O Zion, that dwellest with the daughter of Babylon. For thus saith the LORD of hosts; After the glory hath he sent me unto the nations which spoiled you: for he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of his eye."
Jeremiah 16:14-15 says, "Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that it shall no more be said, The LORD liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; But, The LORD liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers." This prophecy was given around 600 BC, more than 100 years after the Assyrians to the northern tribes captive.
Ezekiel 34:12-13 says, "As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day. And I will bring them out from the people, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country."
God returning Israel to their land is the subject of Ezekiel's prophecy of the dry bones. Ezekiel 37:1-2 says, "The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry."
In Ezekiel 37:5-8, the vision continues to show the bones resurrection with a complete body, but still with no life. "Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD. So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them." This condition of being resurrected, but still with no breath may be in reference to the way Israel will be brought back to the land, but for a few years, they will still be without the indwelling Holy Spirit.
But they receive their breath in Ezekiel 37 verses 9-10, "Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army."
Ezekiel 37:11-14 tells of how God would one day bring the people of Israel back to their land. "Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts. Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the LORD have spoken it, and performed it, saith the LORD." Notice how Israel being forced out of their land is likened to their bones being dried out. But by stark contrast, Israel being returned to their land is compared to them coming out of their graves.
This passage is directly followed by another key passage, the sign of the two sticks. Ezekiel 37:15-17 says, "The word of the LORD came again unto me, saying, Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and for all the house of Israel his companions: And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand." Notice here that we have all the tribes of Israel, not just the southern kingdom, even though the northern kingdom had long since been carried away into captivity. We see the southern kingdom on one stick, the northern kingdom on the other, and the two sticks become one stick.
Then in the following verses, God provides the explanation of this sign. Ezekiel 37:18-22 says, "And when the children of thy people shall speak unto thee, saying, Wilt thou not shew us what thou meanest by these? Say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his fellows, and will put them with him, even with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand. And the sticks whereon thou writest shall be in thine hand before their eyes. And say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land: And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all." That is about as clear as it can be stated. All the tribes of Israel will be brought back to the land of Israel from all the Gentile nations and made into one kingdom under one King.
Ezekiel 37:23-24 tells how they will turn to the Lord once again and follow His will. "Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions: but I will save them out of all their dwellingplaces, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them: so shall they be my people, and I will be their God. And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them."
Ezekiel 37:25-26, "And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children's children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore." What kind of covenant? An "everlasting covenant", not for a few years, not until they mess up, but "for evermore".
Continuing in verses 27-28, "My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And the heathen shall know that I the LORD do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for evermore." So all the heathen that have any doubt about what God is going to do with the tribes of Israel in the future should understand this passage. God is making it abundantly clear right here.
We see further prophecies about the specific tribes of Israel in the seventh chapter of the book of Revelation. Revelation 7:1-3 says, "And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree. And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads."
Revelation 7:4-8 tells who these servants of God will be. "And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel. Of the tribe of Juda were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Reuben were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Gad were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Aser were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Nepthalim were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Manasses were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Simeon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Levi were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Issachar were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Zabulon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Joseph were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand."
We see that Joseph still has two portions of the 144,000, listed as Manasses and Joseph. Since Manasses and Ephraim were the sons of Joseph, by process of elimination, the tribe of Joseph in Revelation 7 must be the tribe of Ephraim. But Levi is also listed among the twelve tribes in Revelation 7. So one tribe was left out, the tribe of Dan. I do not know if there is enough information available in the scripture for us to know with certainty just why the tribe of Dan was not included in Revelation 7. Perhaps it is due to Dan having been instrumental in leading Israel into idolatry in their ancient past. Also, Genesis 49:17 says, "Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder (a type of snake) in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward." Perhaps these are reasons why the Dan is not listed with the tribes in Revelation 7. But whatever the reason, we know they still have their place in the kingdom due to prophecies such as Ezekiel 48:1, which we saw above.
The prophecies in the book of Revelation were given well after the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and after most if not all of the rest of the Bible was written. I believe the book of Revelation was written shortly before 70 AD, which would be about 780 years after the northern tribes had been taken captive by Assyria. (For a study of when the book of Revelation was written, see the article, The Seven Churches of Revelation.)
So the prophetic scriptural evidence is very clear. God will bring all the tribes back to the land of Israel, and He will make them one kingdom once again.
Recent History of the Tribes
Now that we have looked at Israel's ancient history and many of the Biblical prophecies about Israel, let's move forward in time to some more recent events. As we saw earlier, the Roman Empire destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD. Over the next 1800 years or so, many wars were fought in the land of Israel. Control of the land changed hands many times between the Romans, the Arabs, the Crusaders, and the Turks. But the land was in pretty sorry shape.
In Leviticus 26:32-33 God warned Israel, "And I will bring the land into desolation: and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it. And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you: and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste."
In the 1869, Mark Twain published a book titled The Innocents Abroad documenting his traveling of the world, which included a detailed account of his tour of Israel and considerable commentary on the condition of the land.
In chapter 46, Twain described the area north of Galilee south of the headwaters of the Jordan River as, "... this blistering, naked, treeless land." Traveling southward toward the Sea of Galilee, he wrote of the valley that, "There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent, not for thirty miles in either direction." Still traveling southward, in chapter 47 he comes within sight of the Sea of Galilee, "... a few miles before us, with not a tree or shrub to interrupt the view ... the sacred Sea of Galilee!"
In recounting the journey from the direction of the Sea of Galilee toward Mount Tabor in northern Israel, he wrote in chapter 49, "A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. We reached Tabor safely .... We never saw a human being on the whole route ...."
In describing the portion of the journey from Bethel southward to Jerusalem, he wrote in chapter 52, "The further we went the hotter the sun got, and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became. There could not have been more fragments of stone strewn broadcast over this part of the world, if every ten square feet of the land had been occupied by a separate and distinct stonecutter's establishment for an age. There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country. No landscape exists that is more tiresome to the eye than that which bounds the approaches to Jerusalem. The only difference between the roads and the surrounding country, perhaps, is that there are rather more rocks in the roads than in the surrounding country."
Later in chapter 52, he describes the size of Jerusalem, "So small! Why, it was no larger than an American village of four thousand inhabitants .... Jerusalem numbers only fourteen thousand people."
In chapter 53, after telling of the wretched poverty and disease in Jerusalem, he wrote, "Jerusalem is mournful and dreary and lifeless. I would not desire to live here."
Twain describes the countryside very near Bethlehem in chapter 55. "The Plain of the Shepherds is a desert paved with loose stones, void of vegetation, glaring in the fierce sun."
Finally, after Twain completes his tour, he provides an overall description of the land of Israel, which he calls "Palestine", in chapter 56, which includes each of the following statements:
"Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent."
"It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land."
"Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies."
"The noted Sea of Galilee, where Roman fleets once rode at anchor and the disciples of the Saviour sailed in their ships, was long ago deserted by the devotees of war and commerce, and its borders are a silent wilderness; Capernaum is a shapeless ruin ... Bethsaida and Chorazin have vanished from the earth, and the "desert places" round about them ... sleep in the hush solitude that is inhabited only by birds of prey and skulking foxes. Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land?"
God had indeed done as He had said in Leviticus 26:32-33, "... I will bring the land into desolation ... and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste."
Just a few years later, beginning in about 1880, substantial numbers for Jews began to leave foreign countries and return to Israel. The history of the Jews return to Israel and the wars between Israel and their neighbors is available from sources such as Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Wikipedia's article on Israel and many others. A brief summary of the key events in Israel's history since then is described below.
In the years from 1880 to 1914 about 75,000 Jews immigrated to the land of Israel, mostly from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Yemen. A great deal of this immigration was sparked by heavy persecution and violence against Jews in Russia. The Jews set up agricultural communities and revived the Hebrew language during this period. During this time, the land of Israel was still under the control of the Ottoman Empire (sometimes referred to as the Turkish Empire).
In World War I the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany, and was defeated by the allies who divided up the empire. On November 2, 1917, the British Balfour Declaration called for the land of Israel to become a national homeland for the Jews and for the British government to help facilitate that effort. On July 24, 1922, on the authority of a mandate by the League of Nations, the British took administrative control of the land of that is today the countries of Israel and Jordan. In the years following World War I, the immigration of Jews, mainly from eastern Europe continued, until the population of Jews in the land of Israel reached about 100,000 by the mid 1920's. During this time, the Jews drained considerable marshland in Israel, making it available for farming. This also helped curb malaria and other diseases by controlling mosquitoes.
Then in the 1930's, with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, there was a very large migration of some 250,000 Jews from Eastern Europe to the land of Israel. Many of these Jews were educated and brought a great diversity of skills and technical abilities to the country. Further immigration continued during World War II, despite British efforts to restrict it.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations passed a resolution to partition the portion a what they called "Palestine" west of the Jordan River, into Jewish and Arab areas. Not long afterward, the British proclaimed that their mandate over the territory would end, effective at midnight on May 14, 1948. When the mandate expired at midnight on May 14, 1948, Israel declared itself to be an independent nation. Israel was immediately recognized by the United States by President Harry Truman. For the first time since Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, conquered Israel more than 2500 years earlier, Israel was an independent nation. Israel was promptly attacked from all sides by their neighbors. The attacking coalition, was led by Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, with smaller troop contributions from Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Sudan. Amazingly, the tiny nation of Israel survived the attack and remained independent.
Over the next three years the population of Jews more than doubled, with the help of new laws which encouraged massive immigration of Jews. Included in this were about 50,000 Jews from Yemen and more than 100,000 from Iraq. From the mid 1950's to early 1960's more than 200,000 Jews immigrated from northern Africa. In the following decades, there were periods of heavy immigration and periods of light immigration, often dependent upon the level of persecution that Jews faced in other countries. Israel also survived three more wars with their Arab neighbors in 1956, 1967, 1973, regaining control of Jerusalem in 1967, for the first time about 1900 years. The largest period of immigration came with the fall of the Soviet Union, resulting in about 700,000 Jews coming from the former Soviet republics in the early to mid 1990's. In all, about three million Jews have immigrated to Israel since 1948. Data from the Jewish Agency reported in a 2008 Jerusalem Post article showed that of over 13 million Jews worldwide, approximately 42% live in Israel and 58% live in other countries, including 40% in the United States, 4% in France, 3% in Canada, 2% in the United Kingdom, 2% in Russia, with smaller populations in Argentina, Germany, Australia, Brazil, and elsewhere.
False Doctrines Concerning the Tribes
Knowing the ancient Biblical history, the prophecies, and the recent history of the nation of Israel, it should now be much easier to recognize the false teachings which differ from the truths of scripture that we have seen.
Most of the false doctrines concerning the tribes of Israel center around a common false theme: That for one reason or the other, God's prophecies about the future of the tribes of Israel are not going to come true.
One such error is the teaching that because Israel in Biblical times did not obey God's laws and/or because they handed over the Son of God to be crucified, that Israel has forever forfeited their place of privilege, and that therefore, God will not follow through on His promises to regather Israel and restore the kingdom. But as we have seen in the prophecy section above, God's prophecies in Deuteronomy 28:63-67 and Deuteronomy 30:1-3 do not say that they are contingent upon the people Israel doing anything. In each passage, God plainly stated, "... it shall come to pass ...." Likewise Hosea 3:4-5, Amos 9:9, Jeremiah 16:14-15, Ezekiel 34:12-13, Ezekiel 37, Ezekiel 48, and Revelation 7, all say that God is going to fulfill those prophecies, period.
Another such error is the teaching that ten northern tribes are lost forever, and so the end times prophecies that mention Israel are not to be taken literally. We have already seen in the pages above what God has clearly said in His prophecies. Many of these prophecies about the tribes of Israel were given long after their exile, and some were even given well after the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. God has made it very plain that He intends to carry through on all His prophecies. One can either believe God, or not believe God. Either way, He will make it happen.
Some say that ten northern tribes of Israel are lost and that not much is known about them or their whereabouts. Not so. Everything is known about them and their whereabouts. You may not know it, and I may not know it, but our Father in Heaven knows them and every hair on their heads. Nearly 800 years after the northern tribes had been taken away into captivity that God explicitly names the tribes, both northern and southern, in describing the future tribulation in Revelation 7:4-8.
Some say that we should not expect that these prophecies will be fulfilled in biological Israelites. While being a biological Israelite alone is not enough, God will save and purify one third of Israel. Zechariah 13:8-9 says, "And it shall come to pass, that in all the land, saith the LORD, two parts therein shall be cut off and die; but the third shall be left therein. And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The LORD is my God." God will fulfill the prophecies about the kingdom quite literally and exactly as He said.
Yet another such error is the claim that since the tribe of Dan is not mentioned in the list of tribes in Revelation chapter 7, that for this reason the prophecy should not be taken literally. Well then, what we do with the rest of the twelve tribes of Israel clearly listed in chapter seven of Revelation? We cannot ignore them just because one is not listed. Judas betrayed Jesus, and was replaced by Matthias as the twelfth apostle (Acts 1:16-26). Does that mean that the twelve were not really Christ's apostles just because of Judas was no longer among them? Of course not, and it is not true with the tribes either.
Also, there are many different cults and false teachers scattered around the world that claim that they are the so-called "lost tribes of Israel". But such claims cannot be supported with scripture. Plus, here and there, one might find a tribe of people somewhere in the world who claim to be descended from the ancient Israelites. Whether they really are or not, God knows.
One might ask, why are there so many false teachings about the tribes of Israel? Notice that each of these errors has one thing in common. They all try to remove the true nation of Israel from their place of privilege and replace them with Gentiles. So these errors are each "replacement theology" in one form or another. Some try to replace Israel with the church (all Christians everywhere). Others try to replace Israel with a particular denomination or with a particular cult or with a different nation of people.
Most of them argue that God is through dealing with Israel as a unique nation. Thus many replacement theologians feel that they have to discredit Revelation chapter 7 and other such prophecies, and say that the specific listing of the tribes of Israel should not be taken literally. But that is just a crafty way of telling people not to believe what God has said. These groups will usually try to say that they themselves are the "spiritual Israel", but they are not spiritual at all. There is nothing "spiritual" about not believing what God has said. What could be more carnal, and less spiritual, than replacing God's words with something else? Too often, replacement theologians falsely teach that "literal" equals "carnal" and that "allegorical" equals "spiritual". But what truly is spiritual is believing what God has said. What is carnal is not believing God and replacing what He has said with an allegorical interpretation that removes the truth from His prophecy. Most of this stems from jealousy of Israel, and also from anti-Semitism, a primary trait of Satan himself.
Back in Genesis 12:3, God said that He would bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel. So it behooves us all to stay on the correct side of that promise.
When Israel as a nation rejected their Messiah (Jesus Christ) who had risen from the dead, God started a totally new ministry to the Gentiles which still continues today. God will still fulfill all that He promised to Israel, but many of the fulfillments have been delayed until this grace dispensation ends, and the law/kingdom dispensation resumes at the beginning of the tribulation. This present grace dispensation (or "church age", as it is often called) is not the subject of old testament prophecy. The church age was a mystery (secret) until God called Paul for his special ministry to the Gentiles in Acts chapter 9. The article Israel's Kingdom Gospel and Our Grace Gospel explains the differences between the old and new programs. The church is not Israel, and Israel is not the church. The mixing of these two separate programs has probably caused more people more misunderstanding about the Bible than any other error. But the scriptures discussed in the article mentioned above will make the distinctions clear for Christians who give it careful consideration.
For additional study on this and related topics, see the following articles:
God Will Yet Choose Israel
The Tribulation: Israel's Seventieth Week
Millennial Kingdom Reign of Jesus Christ
Copyright © 2005 Matthew McGee. All rights reserved.